Illegal gold panning activities are taking a toll on the flora and fauna in the scenic district of Shurugwi, destroying the latent tourism the district is endowed with.
With the imminent closure of Zimasco Mine -- which used to spur business growth in Shurugwi town -- tourism appeared destined to become the mainstay of the district's future development.
Entering the mining town from either side of the highway along the Zvishavane/Masvingo-Gweru road there are billboards inscribed "Welcome to Scenic Shurugwi".
Those that would be visiting this town for the first time might anticipate seeing a plethora of scenically attractive spots --but this is not the case -- these are just old billboards overtaken by events. Shurugwi's scenery has gone to the dogs.
The district is endowed with an array of natural resources which make it one of the few places in the country with a huge tourism potential.
"It seems soon there won't be any Shurugwi scenery to talk about. Gold panning is indeed a big menace and threat to the environment and tourism in Shurugwi," said Henry Gireya Banda who used to live in Shurugwi in the 1980s.
"The advent of illegal gold panners [makorokoza] is a menace to those who might want to be sight-seeing in hills, botanic and valleys as some of them [illegal gold panners] are die-hard thugs who would not have a feeling when harming others."
In its heyday, Shurugwi boasted a number of scenic tourist resorts, with natural attractions and huge tourism potential in the Boterekwa valley.
Besides the famous Boterekwa valley, there are many tourist spots dotted around the mineral-rich district, which include Ferny Creek Botanical Gardens, Bonza Ruins, Danraven Falls and Peak View among others.
A recent survey carried out by The Standard showed that all these tourist resorts have been neglected, with infrastructure now virtually white-elephants. Illegal gold panners have taken over the land and are foraging for the precious mineral at the expense of flora and fauna.
Ferny Creek, which is to the north-east of the town, was popular with tourists in the early 1980s attracting a large chunk of foreign tourists.
Today, the place has overgrown grass that shields the little botanic that's left. The swimming pool and other infrastructure at the place have fallen apart. Ferny Creek was home to Zimbabwe's national flower the Flame Lily (Amakukhulume in Ndebele or Kajongwe in Shona).
A stone's throw away from the botanical gardens was once a 19-hole golf course which was turned over by chrome mining company -- Zimasco. The golf course which was popular with tourists and hosted high profile tournaments is now just a heap of earth.
Boterekwa valley, which was famous for freshwater streams and various plant species used to attract a large number of tourists every year, but today the land has been turned up-side-down by illegal gold panners and the water is polluted.
"The efforts required to make Shurugwi attractive for tourists is lacking. During our time in the Shurugwi Town Council we talked about it [tourism] but nothing tangible came out since we were focused mainly on service provision after we took over a debt-ridden council in 2008," said Bulle Madzitire, former Shurugwi Town Council chairman.
He said the local authorities (Shurugwi Town Council and Tongogara Rural District Council) were sitting on their laurels with nothing to offer in terms of reviving tourism in the district.
However, Tongogara Rural District Council chief executive officer, Addington Munyoro said his council's efforts to embark on tourism projects in 1998 hit a brick wall due to illegal gold mining and the Land Reform programme.
"In 1998 council identified the following tourism projects -- Reitfortein Ranch and Boterekwa Range which covers 3 425 hectares as well as the 3 000-hectare Gwenhoro Game Park," said Munyoro.
"Shurugwi is a mineral-rich district, hence most of its land is covered with mining claims. The mining activities especially gold panning affected the Boterekwa project. The Land Reform programme also led to the abandonment of the Gwenhoro Game Park."
He said Tongogara Rural District Council identified a local partner in 2008 to fund the tourism projects after failing to get funding from the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP).
Munyoro said council failed to raise funds needed for the Gwenhoro Game Park project which had an initial high capital cost which included fencing of at least 26km, construction of access roads, procurement of game animals and accommodation facilities for the workers.
The failure by the local authorities to promote tourism and associated services in the scenic valleys and other tourist spots has drawn criticisim from locals. They said tourism in the district had lost its attractiveness due to lack of synergies between local authorities and tourism establishments.
"Government and the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority must work with councils to improve basic infrastructure so that tourists make it to these destinations. Hotels, guesthouses and motels must be established to accommodate visitors," said Wedson Chirwa, a resident.
"Some sites in Boterekwa could be chosen as camping areas for tourists to access the valleys and waterfalls in Boterekwa."
Most of the infrastructure in Shurugwi is very old. The only hotel in the town centre -- Grand Hotel -- now operates as a bar while some sections of the hotel have been leased out to Small-to-Medium Enterprises.
Tourism contributes 10% to the GDP and government is planning to grow the tourism contribution to the country's gross domestic product (GDP) to 15% by 2015.